updated 2/9/2006 10:30:40 AM ET 2006-02-09T15:30:40

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits edged up slightly last week but remained at a level indicating a strong labor market.

Major Market Indices

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 277,000 persons went to state unemployment offices last week to make applications for jobless benefits, an increase of 4,000 from the previous week.

That was below the gain of 12,000 that economists had been expecting and provided further evidence that the labor market has strengthened significantly in recent weeks.

Highlighting that improvement, the four-week moving average for claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, fell again last week to 276,500. That was the lowest level in nearly six years, since April 2000, the month after the 2001 recession had begun.

The rise of 4,000 claims last month followed a drop of 11,000 the previous week. Jobless claims have been below the 300,000-mark for five of the past six weeks.

The weekly jobless figure was providing the same evidence of strengthening labor markets as the monthly unemployment numbers. The government reported last week that the jobless rate fell to a 4½-year low of 4.7 percent in January as businesses created 193,000 new jobs.

The economy created 1.98 million new jobs last year after adding 2.1 million jobs in 2004. Those strong job gains followed job losses in 2001 and 2002 and only a tiny increase in 2003 as the country struggled with a prolonged jobless recovery following the 2001 recession.

The strengthening labor market in recent weeks is certain to gain attention at the Federal Reserve where officials have been boosting interest rates gradually since June 2004 in an effort to cool economic growth enough to make sure that tight labor markets do not trigger higher inflation.

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